In the third episode of the Chamber of Musical Curiosities podcast, Paul Kildea is joined by actor, producer, director and author John Bell, known for his influence on the development of Australian theatre through the 20th century. Together they reminisce on Paul's first encounter with John's work in 1984, his fond memories of University years, and leaving Australia to join the Royal Shakespeare Company; the moment in his life where he "really learned what acting was about".
John touches on his time running Nimrod Theatre Company, before a period of freelancing which would inevitably lead to founding the Bell Shakespeare company in 1990, and the motivations behind this pivotal moment in his life. John and Paul then lead the conversation in a musical direction, discussing the use of music in Shakespearean productions.
A special note of thanks to John Bell who donated his honorarium fee back to Musica Viva to produce this episode.
Paul: Welcome to the podcast. I'm Paul Kildea, Artistic Director of Musica Viva and I'm here today speaking with John Bell, actor, producer, director and author. John, very nice to see you.
John: Hi Paul, very nice to be here.
Paul: You probably get sick of people doing this, but I'm going to tell the moment I first encountered your work, and so I'm going to say 1984 and it was the production of The Servant of Two Masters which Nick Enright adapted and you directed and Drew Forsythe acted in, and I can still remember the poster, the program cover, the fast paced and the brilliant humour of it all. And that's after quite some decades. I wonder if you could remember that production with the same clarity and fondness that I do.
John: Yes, I can remember it very clearly. It was a wonderful vehicle for Drew. It was written as a vehicle for Drew. Drew had done a lot of work with the Nimrod Theatre up to that point and it was coming up to the opening of the new Sydney Theatre company and every company around town was invited to contribute a production in that gap year before the Sydney Theatre Company got off the ground, put on a show in the Opera House. And so, Nick Enright and Terri Clark and I had to think about it and thought, let's do a vehicle for Drew Forsythe and Nick came up with the idea of The Servant of Two Masters and wouldn't be a great musical. So then Terri said yes, I'll write the music. And that was one of those old fashioned Nimrod type shows, that were kind of flung together according to the available talent and drawing out that talent to its's best potential. So the music was a marvellous pastiche of pantomime and lyric opera and comic opera and musical, according to the character and the situation. But somehow it all magically seemed toe work. Steven Curtis’ wonderful designs helped a lot, but basically it was a a chance for Drew to play not just one, but two marvellous characters playing himself and his twin, doing lightning quick changes from under the other. It was sheer delight.
Paul: It was a hoot from an audience point of view, and I just wonder, I didn't know Drew, but I'd come from Canberra to see that and hadn't known Drew Forsythe as an actor. But was this a departure for him, or was it just a consolidation of the type of roles he'd been doing?
John: It was very much his territory, the very first show that Nimrod put on in the Old Stables theatre, which was, of course, then the Nimrod Theatre. The first year we did was called Biggles, written by Michael Boddy, with John Hargraves as Biggles and Drew Forsythe playing Ginger. A cast of four or five. Anna Volska and Jane Harders were in it and Peter Rowley and Michael Boddy, himself. And that was again, that sort of pastiche, music hall send-up off the Biggles mythology. And so that was Drew's first job out of NIDA. And then he stayed working with Nimrod, off and on over the next 10 years or more, and we kept finding material that suited his particular talent, which is vast. And of course, it's being the manifest of the last 20 years now in the Wharf Revue, where he's found a real the nest for himself along with Jon Biggins and Phil Scott.
Paul: Yes, and the studying kind of political eye as well, that is nested in that whole set up. So, this is 1984 with The Servant of Two Masters. When did you found or co-found Nimrod?
John: That was the end of 1970. I was teaching at NIDA. I just come back from England after five years with the Royal Shakespeare. I was offered the job of head of acting at NIDA. So I did that for a year, then found I wasn't really ready for an institution or teaching. I didn't know enough to be teaching at that stage of my life, so when my friend Ken Haller said he'd found this old stables in Kings Cross, would I throw in my job at NIDA and join him in starting a theatre company in this old stables? Recklessly, I said, yes, let's do it. We had no money, no, no backing of any sort, we just passed the hat around and got the thing off the ground on. The idea was to do pretty much local content, rough kind of theatre, which was rather inspired, I suppose by my first ever production, which was the legend of King O Malley, which I did at NIDA, that the Jane Street Theatre, which was again an amalgamation of music hall and pastiche, and pantomime, with Michael Boddy at the helm as a writer. Uh, so I guess that particular kind of theatre appealed to me a lot, probably because that's the first theatre I ever saw. When I was a three and four year old, I saw Bobby Le Brun playing the Pantomime Dame in the Sorlie’s Travelling Tent shows up in Maitland, Newcastle. So that was my first impression of theatre and what gave me my basic love of theatre. I guess that has shone through in a lot of my work and probably still would today. If you look closely enough, you'll find all those elements of popular street and, you know, traditional theatre thrown together. So that was the first show at the Nimrod, and then, after four years in the stables, we needed a bigger space. So we took over an old factory and Surry Hills in Belvoir Street and turned that into the second Nimrod Theater where I stayed in the next five years.
Paul: So, when you founded it, you're still 12, 13, 14 years ahead of the Sydney Theatre Company. What's around in terms of Sydney and professional theatre companies at that stage? I mean, it's the Elizabethan Trust performing theatre. What's there?
John: Not a great deal. When I was at University a few years before. It was 58 to 62. There wasn't much theatre at all. We had the Ensemble under Hayes Gordon, which was basically a teaching theatre and semi pro. The Independent Theatre, and by Doris Fitton, which was all entirely amateur. And the Elizabethan Theatre Trust had several attempts to set up companies, and they hadn't lasted very long. Perhaps the most successful one was the Trust Players, who had a short life, maybe four or five seasons, but really good established actors and polished productions. But I guess the support, the groundswell just wasn't there to maintain a theatre of any magnitude for a very long period of time. And then we had the JC Williamson's musicals, which was, I guess, the main fair. Always with imported leading actors who'd been the under studies on West End or Broadway. And then we have the Phillip Street Revue with people like Gordon Chater and Barbara Wyndon, which was a golden era. Small theatre but did some wonderful, wonderful work. But that was about all, so if you wanted to see Shakespeare or Brecht or Beckett or anything like that, you had to go to university. The players and suds were working very hard, churning out theatre, sometimes good, sometimes very studenty. But that's where my generation learned our craft. Working in those university productions. And it was quite an interesting array of talent around at that time.
Paul: Talk a little bit about it because we know, of course, of the great intellectuals from that time. The Clive James's etcetera, who leave Sydney University for various reasons, but the actors and the directors and the script and screenwriters that would come into their own in the decades to follow.
John: Well, there were a lot of people, and I hope I can remember most of the people who were there, but as you say Clive James was writing the revues that we were all acting in. He and Leo Scofield was directing a lot of the musicals. Germaine Greer, of course, was acting and writing. And then we have people like Bob Ellis and Laurie Oakes. My contemporaries were people like Ken Hall, Richard Wherrett, Bruce Beresford. It was quite an interesting array of talent, with writing, acting, directing, designing. Of course, Robert Hughes was still designing sets and costumes for us as well. So it was a pretty fancy mix and all highly competitive, huge egos all bumping into each other. But, with the spirit of goodwill. Competitive, but in a very healthy sense. We were all egging each other on to be better in what we did. So I was eternally grateful for being in that particular group of people. Of course Les Murray, another one. He was writing wonderful poetry, even then. A fascinating group of people, and we almost all practically lived on campus. We rarely went home. We would go to lectures during the day sometimes, but spent most of our times in the Union or Manning House, drinking coffee and arguing and talking and then rehearsing and performing at night. So, life was entirely on the campus. And that's one thing I'm very sad and distressed about the near future of university life in Australia. I think we're gonna lose a lot of that campus life.
Paul: Yeah, to rub shoulders and grow, and it's the chance encounters. You don't need to speak for a while those very illustrious Australians, but you could speak for yourself and your motivations for leaving and then going to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, because you've probably just given them that there were a few opportunities actually for you to practice your craft here in Australia at the level above the very fine level that you were obviously achieving at Sydney University at that stage. So I'd be interested in your motivation and your experiences at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Some of the people that you worked with back then and some of the productions and then also we’ll get on, of course, to Bell Shakespeare. But how much was sown in those five years that you were at the company?
John: Well, I've always counted myself very lucky with my timing. Maybe it's being born with a round figure at the end of my date of birth and I count my years in decades. So I've always thought I was very, very lucky in my timing, and that proved so at university because the year I graduated, another theatre company was established by the Elizabethan Theater Trust that was called the Old Tote Theatre Company, and it was called that because it was built right next door to Randwick Racecourse. The Old Tote later became the headquarters for NIDA. So this company was set up. Working in a basically is an old tin shed, now called the Fig Tree Theatre. But that's where the Old Tote started its productions, and the NIDA students were just across the courtyard, and they participated in these productions as extras and under studies. And so I was very fortunate that the year I graduated, I was taken into that company, and that's where I met my wife, Anna Volska who was a recent NIDA graduate. So we were in the first couple of plays together, and then I was asked to play Hamlet, the third show in the season. And the following year, my wife and I were both in Henry the Fifth, for the Adelaide Festival, playing in the circus tent. And so, by the age of 23 I'd done Hamlet and Henry the Fifth, and I thought, my gosh, I've peaked too early. There's nowhere to go. And apart from the Old Tote, there was nothing else, frankly. So, again, I was lucky in my timing. It was right then that the British Council approached me and said they had some money left over. They had to spend by the end of the year. Would I like to go to England on a scholarship? Well, I pounced on that and took off to the Bristol Old Vic School. Anna followed me shortly afterwards, and after six months there, they sent me to audition for the Royal Shakespeare Company and I joined the company at the end of 1964 and we spent the next five years living in Stratford and London and working with the company.
Paul: I once watched a beautiful set of interviews and documents about you, where you said you were overwhelmed by Shakespeare's language from an early age. I was just wondering what kind of child in 1950s, 60s Australia could actually say that?
John: I'm not quite sure why. My mother was quite a successful elocutionist. It was one of those things that young ladies did when she was in her early teens or early married life. Young ladies had to learn elocution or the piano or violin and so her whole family were, you know, into that kind of parlor entertainment, and I used to be taken along to eisteddfods and occasionally even to compete, which I hated. But I was very struck by the way she could recite and present poems and stories. So, maybe that warmed me up for when I first started to hear Shakespeare on radio and then at school. I was very fortunate having two wonderful English teachers, and the first of them didn't actually have us read the plays, he acted the plays for us in the classroom. He played all the parts and described the sets and costumes and pratfalls and the lighting and the scenery. He brought the whole thing to life. So for me, Shakespeare was never a chore. It was entertainment, and I was amazed how closely it resembled the kind of roughhouse pantomime theatre that I had seen. The comic scenes in Shakespeare, the extravagance of the language, they, you know, the excitement of all the action swept me along. So I was riot for Laurence Olivier's movies at an early age. Henry the Fifth, Richard the Third, Hamlet. I was totally confirmed in my determination to be an actor from the age of 15. That was all I wanted to do.
Paul: How did it change, the experience over there, but also, I suppose, immersing yourself in those amazing films with Olivier - how did it change your sense of pace and cadence, if you like? Or didn't it? Did you actually find that you end up at the RSC and the English welcome you with open arms rather than with a sort of patronising air?
John: Oh, well you had to fit in and you had to sort of sound like them. I think Australians were very used to having two voices, Australian actors had one voice for the stage and one for the pub and you didn't ever get them confused or else you'll be in trouble. So we had to try and fit in. But by that time, of course, I'm talking about the mid 60s, the impeccable Mayfair accent of Olivier and that generation was giving way to a rougher, more varied kind of diction. People like Richard Harris and Albert Finney and, you know, Peter O’Toole brought a different kind of diction into the theatre. They were no longer looking for the what you might call the pure English sound of the earlier generation. So it wasn't that hard to fit in, and that was where I really learned acting, I think. I didn't learn much of drama school. You only learn by experience and watching people who are better than you are. So I would stand in the wings every night on watch Paul Schofield, especially, who became my very favourite actor while I was there. But people like Ian Holm, and Ian Richardson and Glenda Jackson, Patrick Stewart. A good generation of actors and just by being in the rehearsal room every day and watching them and hearing them rehearse and then watching from the wings, that was where I really learned what acting was all about.
Paul: We’re going to get onto Bell Shakespeare in a moment. But I just wonder if you could see a real, I don't know, linear line, if you like, for all these actors that you just named and and the parts and the work they were doing then when you were working with them and the RSC days, and then what they went on to do, because some of them went on to to somewhat surprising things.
John: Yes, I suppose it's not like Patrick Stewart, for instance, who became famous because Mr Star Trek. Ian Holm did lots of movies, but he was never kind of a major star in cinema. Nor was Paul Schofield, even though he was such a great actor. He was, and remained very much a theatre actor. He did some great movie roles, of course, including Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons. But I'd say most of that generation were theatre people, and they'd grown up in the theatre and they stuck to it. There were others like Judi Dench, for instance, who was very much a theatre person until she did Cabaret and then became known as a musical performer and then went into movies. So little breaks came a bit later in life for people like her and Maggie Smith. But it's like Ian Richardson, for instance, he did a wonderful television series, House of Cards, from which he became a household name. But all their training and most of their careers were spent in the theatre. I think cinema wasn't quite ready then for that sort of actor. They were still looking at the John Wayne, and that generation of movie stars.
Paul: We'll take a little pause here for a word from our sponsor.
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Paul: I am here with John Bell who leant his name to the company he founded in 1990. I'd love you to talk a little bit about the motivation behind that, John, and what you were doing just in that period in the few years leading up to it.
John: Well, I spent 14 years as one of the directors of the Nimrod, and after 14 years I was pretty clapped out, frankly, with it made the big move from the Stables to Belvoir Street and we were having to find least six new plays a year, etcetera, and keep raising money and trying to fund the operation. After 14 years, I thought, I've had enough now. I’m going to take a break and do something else. Then that in that next four or five years, I freelanced, I did a little bit of stuff in movies, very small stuff - I didn't really get into movies - a few other stage productions, a musical, would you believe, called Big River, which was fun to do. And then another old friend from the Nimrod days, Tony Gilbert, who I had known since university. He said he had some money put aside and he'd like to see something done with Shakespeare because there was not enough Shakespeare happening. How could he use the money? I found a scholarship or some sort of foundation? I said, no, you really should start a theatre company. And he said, well, there's the money, get cracking. It wasn't enough, of course, to set up a company, but it was enough to go to the Elizabethan Theatre Trust and say, here is some seeding money, can you help me get this thing off the ground? And so they gave me an office and a telephone and a secretary, and we set about raising enough money to launch the company in 1991. I think we got about three quarters of a million dollars we managed to raise by knocking on boardroom doors and having lunches. Again it wasn't enough to get the company on a permanent footing, but was enough to launch the company, get it moving, and then set about serious funding.
Paul: I’m interested also, I know you have a deep and profound love of music, and I'd love you to talk about it in the context of how you have approached the issue of music in Shakespeare Productions at different stages of your career. It's sometimes my feeling that Shakespeare obviously used lots of contemporary song in his productions and, to a lesser extent, instrumental music, and he played on the associations of Elizabethan Instruments. There's that wonderful line from Much Ado About Nothing, “is it not strange that sheep’s guts should hale souls out of men's bodies”, which I just think is the most profound and wonderful way of describing the impact of music. But it can end up now, if you use contemporaneous music in Shakespeare productions, it can sound a little Black Adder-ish, so I'm just interested you've approached it?
John: I don't think I've ever actually used contemporary Elizabethan music. It can work. I mean, there was a lovely production of Twelfth Night that John Barton did with Judi Dench and Donald Sinden, that had a very Elizabethan, Jacobean feel about it, and Guy Woolfenden - who was the resident composer for the RSC the whole time I was there and some of years afterwards - had a very keen ear for pastiche. It was Elizabethan-like, but not the real thing. It had enough of a contemporary spin to it to sound both Elizabethan and familiar to the modern ear. But that's not used much anymore. I think most productions these days, probably anywhere in the world, would tend to go for contemporary music, and that can be disastrous depending on the taste of the director and the composer. Or it can be very enlightening and really liven things up. I think it always depends on the play and what kind of production you're doing and who you're doing it for. I've been lucky to have people like Nigel Westlake compose for me, for instance, and really very, very good composers who understand the drama, understand the mood you're after. Alan John has been another one, who has written a lot of music for me. And he’d often say, well, who do you want it to sound like? You know, and I might say Shostakovich or, you know, Scott Joplin or whoever seems appropriate to the mood of the play, and then he'll write accordingly. But I think music to Shakespeare was very, very important as a healing power. King Lear is brought back to life through music. So is Pericles. Shakespeare's love of music is, I think, manifest. “The man that has not music in his soul is fit for plots,” I can't think of the exact line now. “Let me let no such man be trusted”. So he had a great love of music and employed it not just for processions and coronations and parades and battles, but set the mood of the play. You can tell from the word music the lyricism of the verse, what sort of play we're in. And each play has its own voice, its own language, and the music has often very much in tune with that text.
Paul: So speaking of “let no such man be trusted”, Vaughan Williams, of course, did a very beautiful setting of that text and made it very dramatic at precisely that moment. I wonder how you respond to the way that composers over the centuries have set Shakespeare's words, and whether you think that the rhythm of their settings matches the rhythm of your perception of the text?
John: I’m trying to think particularly of composers who have used the lyrics of the verse.
Paul: Let's do something very main stage, which is adaptations, for instance, of Falstaff by Verdi, by Macbeth. by Britten doing A Midsummer Night's Dream. I just wonder if, if you have a very open minded response to that or find that actually, you tend to think, oh my goodness, that's made a bit of a travesty off these astonishing words?
John: Oh, I don't think so. I think Shakespeare is very wide open to many different ways of interpretation. Britten, for instance. I don't like all of the Britten A Midsummer Night's Dream. I don't think the comedy stuff works at all. It's pretty heavy handed I think. But the lyricism for Oberon and the fairies is wonderful, and it doesn't actually necessarily match the way Shakespeare would have heard it, but it's got its own magic, its own, its own power. And he just uses the text to do that. Verdi’s Falstaff, although, of course, we only hear it in Italian, at its best is wonderful. I think it's the best comic opera ever. Well, I’d better be careful here with Mozart when I say that, but it really is full of comedy and robustness, I think, which I don't really associate with Verdi, being a great comic writer, but Falstaff is a comic masterpiece. The other, I think, most successful composer for my generation was William Walton, and his music for the Olivier movies was part of the success of those movies. He had again a very good ear for pastiche an Elizabethan sound, without actually sort of using the rules of composing Elizabethan music. But it feels Elizabethan inspirit. I think he had a great success with all his scores.
Paul: Yes, he did. His relationship with Britten was strained, at best. Walton being jealous of Britten's success, and Britten, I'm not sure was jealous of much, I think Britain was admiring of Walton as a young man and then less so, as they both aged. But the you're absolutely right about both Falstaff. I think, you know, as an astonishing adaptation and is an amazing piece of music written by an 80 year old, but also the Britten in the fairy world. That's the world that actually really caught his eye and captured his imagination. So it's what really brought out the best in him at that moment. In the same show where I saw you talk about loving Shakespeare's words from such a young age, you gave that beautiful speech from the Merchant of Venice. “If you prick us, do we not bleed” etcetera on. It made me think just about memory and memory in actors and the parallels between that and musicians and the sheer amount that you have to absorb over such a long time and how long it stays with you. Do you have thoughts about that?
John: Well, I think it's absolute necessity for actors. And, of course, one thing we're all terrified of is forgetting our lines on. As you get older, it becomes more an anxiety. But even from early on, it's always the thing you most dread, and I've had it twice on stage in my life. I think when the whole world just goes blank and you don't know how much time is passing, but it feels like an eternity. But it was a prerequisite for actors, and I think Shakespeare's actors, particularly, could carry around you know a dozen plays in their heads at any one time because they might be called upon to perform Richard the Second tomorrow or we're gonna do Hamlet on Thursday. There was no sort of fixed repertoire, it was whatever was called for by a particular sponsor or aristocrat, and so they had to carry all these plays around in their heads. And, of course, from the early age, they learned scads and scads of Greek and Roman classics and the Bible. People's memories were prodigious because they had no Google, and a lot of them couldn't read, so you had to memorise an enormous amount of stuff.In fact, the whole question of literacy is interesting, people say, “Oh, they couldn't read in those days”, but of course, look at A Midsummer Night's Dream, all those artisans can read. “Go and study your parts. Here your roles go and learn them” so they could all read. So I think we should give a bit more credence to that most people could read reasonably well. Perhaps men had more education than women. Women learned the bear necessities out of reading and writing, and mostly they learned about housewifary. I think Shakespeare's father could read but not write. So there was this kind of, you know, semiliterate population. But a lot of people could read. Nevertheless, as I say, their memories needed to be prodigious and they were. Musicians totally fascinate me. I think it's extraordinary when I watch people like Simon Tedeschi, with whom I worked quite a lot, memorised the whole Rhapsody in Blue. He just plays off, you know, like he played it every day. But other pianists particularly I can just sit down and roll off, you know, extraordinary amount of music without a score, and I don't know how they do it. Well, I do know a bit because I watched Simon when we were having afternoon tea, and his fingers were rattling on the table the whole time. He's practicing in the back of his head. He's practicing the piano without realising he's doing it. So there's something to do with muscle memory, and there’s the habit of learning and imbibing stuff, so it's always there at your beck and call. And, of course, I always found Shakespeare easy to read because it's a memorable. It's harder to learn a TV script because it's pretty ordinary. But when you get poetry and imagery and extraordinary cadences and rhythm and meter, as you get in verse and in Shakespeare, especially, it makes learning a lot easier and much more pleasurable and far easier to retain. You want to remember it, whereas a lot of scripts you want to throw away as soon as you finish the job. But not with a great play, whether it's Shakespeare or any other great writer. Somehow those words get embedded in your memory, and you want to keep them there in a little private library of your own.
Paul: Is there Ah, favourite line, speech or sentence in your own private library, with which we could end this beautiful conversation?
John: There are so many, but one that always struck me, that I always felt quite moving to say at the end of The Tempest. I've done Prospero three times, in various productions, and at the end of it, I said this long battle with Caliban all through the play, trying to subdue and control Caliban. But at the end, he says; “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine”, and I've always found that very moving that he's forgiving and accepting Caliban, but also acknowledging the darkness in himself that he has projected onto Caliban, and and I guess we don't have to acknowledge that the darkness in ourselves if we're going to be whole.
Paul: John Bell, Thank you very much.
John: Thank you, Paul. That was great pleasure.